Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pining in Pasadena

I am this evening mourning my lost pine trees. There aren't many of them in the canyon where I live, and I was fortunate to have two on my property, at the back, on the far side of the pool. They were sixty or seventy feet tall, with ogived arms and needles as fine as salt spray; nests to robins, blackbirds, hawks and the occasional owl. But a few years ago, bark boring beetles made their way through Southern California, and my twin pines were infested with them. They fought for two summers, and I thought last year that they had won. But it wasn't until the fire department left me a notice ordering me to remove them that I realized they were gone.

I took estimates from several companies and found one that offered to cut them down for half of what the others wanted. I happened to be at home the day it was done, and so I watched occasionally from the windows as my pines were dismembered and topped and chainsawed down and the pieces carted away. Now there is a gap at the back of my yard, a bare space thick with fragrant sawdust, revealing a mashed fence and the Spanish tile roof of my neighbor's house below me.

It would be easy, I suppose, to make maudlin comparisons between the loss of my pines and the human condition, bored through with mortality as we are, fighting a losing battle against destruction. But I prefer to think of those two trees as family who have passed on. They join with those whom I had previously lost: my parents, my grandparents, a baby sister, uncles and aunts I never knew and of whose existence I only recently learned, teachers, old friends, two cats and a golden retriever.

I never mourned until recently, because, I suppose, of my Catholic school training, during which, as an altar boy serving wakes, I stood at candlelit attention over two dead bodies every week for six years religiously. I often remark that I saw more cadavers as a child than most medical students do. And that continual exposure to death inured me to its sting, so that even when my mother came home in tears from the maternity hospital, and when she herself died suddenly, and when my father, after long years trying, finally drank himself to death, I scarcely reacted, because I thought my religion and my Anglo-Saxon duty forbade me from doing so.

But I have felt these latest deaths, and any death and every death that comes close by me these days with a keenness seasoned by years of what I can only call enforced stolidity. I was told it was a sign of strength, but the fact is that the longer we remain impassive before mortality, the more vulnerable, not the stronger we become. Since silence is our destiny, we gain nothing by practicing it in life. I sometimes envy those African women I saw when I was a volunteer in the Congo, standing by the roadside at night and wailing out their souls for lost loves. I think now that they were wiser and healthier than me in their howling public grief.